BY ZULHILMI ZAINAL Follow on Twitter
The second leg FA Cup quarter-final match between Johor Darul Ta'zim (JDT) and Pahang at Larkin was an undeniably gripping affair, with defending champions Southern Tigers overturning the 3-1 first leg scoreline to take the lead through the away-goal advantage in the first 20 minutes of the match, only for the Tok Gajah to snatch a late winner through Mohamadou Soumareh's header.
Sadly, all the tactical analysis and discussions on the encounter will no doubt be overshadowed by one aspect of the match; the poor refereeing in the match.
The match was a testy affair from the start due to JDT's intense pressing in the first half, which resulted in the visitors resorting to making risky tackles, but referee Zulkifli Ahmad for most part kept his cards in his pocket.
A 17th-minute studs up challenge from behind by JDT midfielder Afiq Fazail on Syamim Yahya that forced the latter to leave the pitch to get treatment went unpunished, although Syamim himself would be booked towards the end of the first half for a crunching tackle on a JDT player.
But the first of the most glaring contentious decisions happened in the 49th minute, when Afif Amiruddin blatantly brought down JDT's Argentine forward Gabriel Guerra in the Pahang penalty area, missing the ball completely. Zulkifli signalled for a goal kick to be taken, and Guerra was understandably livid.
"This is not a penalty? After this incident, are there still people saying I control the referees and also have the referees in my pocket?" pic.twitter.com/EairOxEfQe — JOHORSouthernTigers (@OfficialJohor) April 23, 2017
The other glaring decision happened towards the end of the match minutes after the Gambian's winner was scored, and this time it went against the Elephants.
Soumareh tried dispossessing Afiq with a rather physical body check that floored the midfielder, and the youngster retaliated by turning over on the pitch and kicking the Pahang man on the chest.
The kick did not appear to be too strong, but Soumareh nevertheless crumpled on the floor theatrically and an altercation between both teams' players ensued. Shockingly, no cards was shown by the match official and play resumed.
So incensed was JDT boss Benjamin Mora by the refereeing that when he was asked what went wrong for his side in the match by the match broadcaster after the whistle was blown, he replied "The referee," without missing a beat (while not mentioning the incidents involving Afiq at all).
The quality of refereeing in Malaysian football has always been under criticism, but then again the decisions made by referees everywhere are always called into question.
However, the intensity of the discussions concerning refereeing in the M-League has picked up nevertheless over the past month, due to seemingly questionable decisions made in several high-profile matches.
Just one week earlier, two Super League matches played on the same evening received attention due to the referee's decisions. In the encounter between JDT and PKNS, it was a soft penalty call to the Southern Tigers which then led to the winning goal. In the match between T-Team and Kedah, a stamp by Fakhrurazi Musa on Kedah defender Rizal Ghazali caused the latter to retaliate with a punch, but the former was then shown only a yellow card for his challenge, while Rizal was sent off. Down to ten men, the Red Eagles then proceeded to lose the match 5-0.
T-Team vs Kedah. Photo from T-Team FC Facebook
This is not to say that Pahang only won because of the match official's errors. After all, Pahang never gave up until the last minute of the match, while JDT themselves played rather poorly by their own standards in the first leg. It's a pity that a match that could have been used as a benchmark for a strong performance by an M-League side this season, will now definitely be tainted by accusations of the biased match officiating.
The implementation of the video assistant referee (VAR), which is set to be tested in this year's Malaysia Cup, can't surely take place any sooner for the Malaysian FA (FAM).